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A Brief History of Witch-Hunts


Thirteen years ago lightning struck and badly damaged a small village in South Africa. A group of people visited the local witch doctor to see if he could ‘sniff’ out who was responsible. One man at the back of the crowd said he was convinced his sister-in-law, 62-year-old Esther Rasesemola, was responsible for the lightning. Convinced she was a witch, the crowd came to her house during the night, burnt it down and took all her possessions. Then she and her family were driven out and banished. Rasesemola later said that she believed her brother-in-law’s motive in accusing her was that he owed her money and wanted rid of her so that he wouldn’t have to pay it back.

Rasesemola was very lucky in comparison to some: a departmental survey in Tanzania estimated that between 1994 and 1998 as many as 5,000 people were lynched and burnt to death in witch-hunts. The incidents always began with extraordinary allegations made against someone, followed by gossip and rumour, which was worked up into hysteria leading to violence.

I was reminded of this story a few days ago whilst visiting Edinburgh Castle and the Museum of Scotland. In the latter there is a gallery devoted to the Scottish witch-hunts of 1550-1700, which resulted in 1500 executions, the most violent throughout the Witch Craze, or “the Burning Times”, in Europe when over 50,000 were killed. Witchcraft never flourished in Ireland and there are few examples of witch-hunts in the country (until the suspected outbreak in May 2003).

Back in the sixteenth century superstition abounded and was exploited by the unscrupulous for political ends. In 1591 Princess Anne of Denmark, future bride of King James of Scotland, encountered a violent storm at sea that prevented her crossing from Norway. James set sail to bring her to Scotland but on their return journey they encountered an even stronger storm that waylaid and threatened his ship, though after great difficulty they reached shore safely.

A maidservant, Geillis Duncan, who helped cure poor, sick people through natural medicines and herbs, was arrested on suspicion of being a witch after her employer told the authorities that she went out late at night. She was tortured and implicated a schoolteacher, Dr John Fian, and several others and they confessed to a conspiracy to kill the king and his bride by throwing a dead cat into the sea. Fian then accused the Earl of Brothwell, to whom he acted as a secretary, of being the leader of their coven. Brothwell was the half-cousin of the king and next in line to the throne if James did not have any children. It was preposterous but this political dimension to the alleged plot suited the king and his advisors.

One of those tortured described how they would meet in the church where the Devil would get up on the pulpit, expose his bare backside and enjoin them to kiss his buttocks and swear against the king. Several of the accused were executed and Brothwell was banished to Italy. The king went on to write a book, ‘Daemonlogie’, which became the official handbook in Scotland and England and which triggered a mass witch-hunt in which the phenomena of people accusing others to ‘protect’ themselves was a common feature. It was not until the end of the seventeenth century that the witch-hunts, for the most part, ended.

The Roman Catholic Church as well as in Scotland the new church of fanatical Calvinism carried out witch-hunts which resulted in the torture and burning at the stake, or mass hangings, of victims. Three-quarters of the victims were women, and men were exclusively the prosecutors, judges, jailers and executioners, indicating a widespread misogyny throughout society (though women also testified against other women in large numbers).

A publication by the Catholic inquisition authorities, ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, said: “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman… What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours… Women are by nature instruments of Satan – the are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation.”

Witch-hunts have been around for millennia and are not just to be associated as reactions to medieval epidemics, natural disasters or superstition. It is significant that “the Burning Times” coincided with the Reformation when emergent Protestantism clashed with institutionalised Catholicism, leading to the collapse of a stable world-view. In political usage the term denotes the searching out and exposure of opponents alleged to be disloyal to the state, an institution or an organisation – often amounting to persecution.

A paranoid Stalin carried out chilling public witch-hunts in the 1930s against prominent Bolsheviks who allegedly opposed or were critical of him. They faced show trials and were forced to confess to ridiculous crimes they could have had no part in. The number of victims has not been officially established but around five million were arrested, of which 800,000 were sentenced to death.

In 1940 the US Congress passed the Alien Registration Act, which made it illegal for anyone in the USA to advocate, abet or teach the desirability of overthrowing the government. Its main objective was to undermine the American Communist Party (which had a respectable and substantial following) and other left-wing political groups. Later, Congress’s House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) launched an investigation into people working in the Hollywood Picture Industry suspected of unpatriotic behaviour.

A pamphlet written by three former FBI agents and a right-wing television producer named 151 writers, directors and performers who they claimed had been members of subversive organisations. Those named were blacklisted until they appeared before the HUAC and recanted their radical past. When they appeared they were ordered to name other names and so the witch-hunt under Senator Joseph McCarthy began. McCarthy was chairman of the Government Committee on Operations of the Senate and the witch-hunt and anti-communist hysteria he supervised and encouraged became known as McCarthyism.

McCarthy then targeted what he believed were anti-American books in libraries, 30,000 of which he claimed were written by “communists, pro-communists, former communists and anti anti-communists”! After the publication of this list, these books were removed from library shelves.

However, when he then began investigating alleged communist infiltration of the military President Eisenhower realised it was time to put an end to McCarthy’s activities. He was censured and removed as chair of the committee.

King James of Scotland, though he believed in the powers of witches, later realised that many false and spurious allegations were being brought to court. He came to regret that his writings had created an atmosphere of hysteria that had led to wanton prosecutions and vicious violence against innocent people whose reputations had been irredeemably destroyed. His change of heart came too late. He had triggered a witch-craze which did not stop until the end of the seventeenth century, long after he and the people originally involved were all dead.